Widgets Magazine


Confessions of a liberal

It’s 2018, but I’m going to say it anyway — the 2016 election made me angry. I was angry that 62 million Americans voted for a man who, in my opinion, was — and still is — bigoted, underqualified, selfish and power hungry. Every time Trump makes an offensive remark, uses his platform to create and spread verifiably false statements, strips away regulations designed to protect us, creates chaos in government or initiates dangerous international crises, I think of my 62 million fellow citizens who put him in the White House.

When Trump tried to cut the very social programs many of his supporters rely on, I wasn’t nearly as angry as I should have been. They voted for him, they should experience the consequences of their actions. When Trump’s tariffs lead China to enact tariffs on American goods which specifically targeted Trump voters, I couldn’t help but feel a vicious stab of satisfaction.

Suddenly, I understand articles about polarization in America all too well. I’ve read about Democrats and Republicans having unfavorable views of each other. I’ve heard that political preferences now also correlate with living preferences and a host of seemingly unrelated variables. Somehow, though, I convinced myself that this trend wouldn’t affect me.

I like arguing with people who aren’t liberals. A few of my relatives support Trump. Sure, it happens that those relatives live in Florida, while the rest of my extended family lives in the Northeast, but they’re still part of my family. In my head, those details, along with a completely unjustified faith in my own empathy, were enough to reassure me that polarization was something that happened to other people.

I was very wrong. My anger at Trump and everything he’s done since entering the 2016 presidential election easily transferred to everyone who voted for him, or even refused to vote for Hillary (sure, she’s not my favorite, but it was obvious that not voting or voting for a third party candidate would help Trump). That anger convinced me that people who voted for Trump, or even live in an area which voted for Trump, somehow deserve to bear the brunt of his incompetence and disregard for other people.  

That’s not alright. First, anyone who lives in a pro-Trump area but doesn’t support Trump is obviously having a tougher time than me (someone who lives on a college campus in California). They don’t deserve to be screwed over more than they already have been.

Finding empathy for Trump supporters is harder. 62 million Americans voted for Trump — even after he promised to cut the programs many of his own supporters rely on; even after he threatened to start a trade war (and multiple news organizations, including CNN and the right-leaning Wall Street Journal, explained how a trade war would hurt most Americans); even when Trump promised to bring factory and mining jobs back without explaining how he would overcome the automation of such jobs. 

Those people are adults, who presumably had access to at least some information about Trump and his platform. I am not willing to excuse them of responsibility for this by claiming that they are victims of economic anxiety, or that they were simply misinformed or that this is all Facebook’s fault. Frankly, I do not understand how anyone can make those arguments.

If you truly believe that economic anxiety, misinformation or social media are enough to dupe 62 million voters, so much so that those voters are no longer responsible for their choices, then I find it difficult to understand how you support a democracy in which those voters are required to participate. Democracy is about popular participation, not participation by a specific group. That means everyone gets a voice, but it also means that everyone is treated as a fully-fledged, autonomous person, who is responsible for how they choose to use their voice. Treating Trump voters as easily manipulated sheeple deprives them of personhood and undermines the idea of popular participation in democracy. It’s patronizing and exposes one’s own lack of regard for the average American.

Furthermore, I am not going to cop out of finding empathy for people whose decisions I vehemently oppose by arguing that those people are somehow not responsible for their decisions. I also refuse to let myself feel vindictive and spiteful towards 62 million people.

So what will I do? There must be some way to reconcile blaming someone for America’s present calamity, while feeling sorry that the calamity is causing them pain.

When I asked my friends about this, one quoted something on the internet: You are only required to respect someone else’s opinion if that opinion respects your existence. To that person, supporting Trump means that you support his bigotry and do not respect the existence of women, people of color, non-Christian people, poor people, disabled people or LGBTQ+ people. My friend cannot see how you can have true empathy for people who hate you — or why you should.

My friend may be right, but I don’t want to believe this. Recently, in a class called Rules of War, Reverend Scotty McLennan gave a guest lecture. He was speaking about pacifism, and, in preparation for his lecture, students were asked to read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Nonviolence and Racial Justice.” Dr. King argues in this essay that finding and developing an unconditional platonic love for all human beings is vital to one’s own happiness and to progress for society as a whole.

Unconditional respect and care for all humans is an appealing ideal. It allows me to be angry at my fellow citizens while still respecting and empathizing with them. It allows me to care about Trump supporters without excusing their choices or relieving them of responsibility. It’s also really hard. I’ve been trying to find this love, and I will keep trying. I am forcing myself to think about and remember the specific individuals who are hurt by Chinese tariffs or social program cuts, rather than lumping the occupants of Trump country into a faceless and bigoted mass. Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I fail, but at least I am trying.

This solution is, admittedly, imperfect. I’m unavoidably playing into the stereotype of a bleeding-heart liberal and, more importantly, focusing on my internal dialogue doesn’t necessarily translate into becoming a more empathetic person or taking action to help people.

It happens that I was able to put this into practice, or at least attempt to, while applying for summer internships and jobs (every college student’s favorite pastime). I initially refused to consider any positions in areas which voted heavily for Trump, or in organizations which focus on helping populations which tend to support Trump.

However, after realizing how easily I’d let myself dismiss all Trump supporters, I went back to the internships I’d dismissed and started writing cover letters. I didn’t get an offer for any of those positions, and I’m more than willing to admit that I deserved those rejections. But l am doing my best to look for ways to help organizations which help people in rural and right-leaning areas. (Feel free to email me with suggestions!)

As I’ve tried to be more empathetic to Trump supporters, though, I’ve run into another question: Are my efforts a betrayal of all the people Trump has harmed (often far more egregiously than he has harmed his supporters)? Am I betraying immigrants and asylum seekers and trans people? Ultimately, I don’t think so. Empathy is not zero-sum, nor is my energy. I can volunteer for multiple charities and attempt to help multiple groups. I will likely choose an event aimed at benefiting refugees over one aimed at raising money for rural workers hurt by tariffs if the two directly conflict, but that sort of conflict hasn’t come up yet.

Empathizing with people with whom I disagree is sometimes difficult, but achievable. Empathizing with people who voted Donald Trump into office about the ways in which Donald Trump has harmed them is much more difficult. If I give up, though, I will be allowing Trump not only to enact terrible policies and undermine democracy as we know it, but also to damage my own humanity. Dr. King wrote about using love to humanize our opponents and ourselves. Our capacity for empathy is what makes us human and, I believe, what makes democracy work. That’s worth saving.


Contact Sarah Myers at smyers3 ‘at’ stanford.edu

About Sarah Myers

Sarah is a freshman from Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, studying International Relations, Physics, and Human Rights. On campus, Sarah writes for the Daily's Opinions section, tutors for East Palo Alto Tennis and Tutoring, and is a member of Stanford in Government's Community Service Committee. Sarah enjoys reading and obsessively refreshing her news feed.
  • LesserOf_TwoEvils

    The problem in 2016, which you and the rest of the Left still refuse to admit, is that Hillary was in every way worse even than Trump, both personally and, more importantly, in policy terms, specifically with respect to economics and to foreign policy.

    In particular, continuation and expansion of big government forced redistribution of wealth, as Hillary advocated, is both an immoral violation of the consent of those being taken from as well as counterproductive for the prosperity of those it purports to help. The Heritage Foundation Index of Economic Freedom data as well as several other studies, and the obvious apples-to-apples comparisons of East Germany to West Germany or North Korea to South Korea, among others, show that the freer a society is from government regulation and interference, the more prosperous even the poorest in that society become. In other words, “progressive” economic policy is simply factually incorrect and inconsistent with history.

    And as to foreign policy, continuation of the policy of appeasement (and in some cases outright support) of tyrants is the mechanism that allows tyrants to flourish. Neville Chamberlain is the canonical example, but Barack Obama, whose Secretary of State was Hillary Clinton, also followed this model, and also had disasterous results, as in Syria and Libya and North Korea. Consider how much ISIS has lost since Trump was inaugurated, and consider that Kim Jong Un is now coming to the bargaining table.

    In short, as reprehensible as Trump is as an individual, he was still the lesser of two evils.
    In some of the most important areas of policy, he’s on the correct side where Hillary was in the wrong.

    It’s reasons like these that Trump won, not because anyone thinks he’s a stand up guy or that he’s going to be great on race or gender issues and the like.

  • TheCardinalRules

    This column really saddens me because it indicates that Stanford is failing at producing graduates capable of fact-based, reasoned opinions who are actually interested in civil discourse.

    This author’s perspective simply perpetuates the problem in our society. We project baseless, horrible views of those with whom we disagree and then expect them to respect our opinions. It is nearly impossible to engage in civil discourse when that is the starting point.

    The author also creates a false premise that just because someone voted for Trump that they agree with everything the author thinks Trump stands for. Not to mention that what she thinks Trump believes is largely baseless, especially if you look at the actual policies that have been implemented (and not implemented) and their impact on the groups of people he allegedly hates.

  • Man with Axe

    I think it’s worth considering more closely your friend’s comment: “You are only required to respect someone else’s opinion if that opinion respects your existence. To that person, supporting Trump means that you support his bigotry and do not respect the existence of women, people of color, non-Christian people, poor people, disabled people or LGBTQ+ people.”

    The idea that someone “doesn’t respect your existence” sounds like nonsense to me, but maybe you can explain what he means. Since close to half the people who voted for Trump were women, does that mean those women do not respect the existence of women? That doesn’t make one lick of sense.

    This is the sort of thing your friend heard from some activist type. I know this because I’ve read almost exactly the same thought in the same words in scores of college newspaper articles. The notion that someone who disagrees with you doesn’t “respect your existence” simply doesn’t follow. Now, one might not like certain groups of people (e.g., so many colored people don’t seem to like white people very much, and many feminists don’t seem to like frat boys very much, and planned parenthood supporters don’t like pro-lifers) but that doesn’t mean they support ending the existence of those groups. I’m guessing from your article that there are all sorts of people you don’t like, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t respect their existence, and that you advocate for genocide against them. So, your friend is engaging in hyperbole because he’s heard it from his activist friends, who all agree without really thinking about what they are saying.

    Additionally, your friend is wrong is suggesting that supporting Trump means one agrees with all his personal defects. Perhaps one despises Trump (as I do, and for many of the same reasons, and did not vote for him) but he votes for Trump because he truly sees him as the lesser of two evils. I know this is hard to imagine if you bought the line that Hillary Clinton is as honest as the day is long and she was truly the most qualified candidate ever to run for president. To many who held their noses and voted for Trump these assertions were laughable. She lied and lied and lied. She was an enabler of her husband’s sexual assaults, and she lied about the women he assaulted as well as the women with whom he had consensual affairs. She and her husband accepted hundreds of millions of dollars in speaking fees and contributions from foreign countries while she was secretary of state. She erased her emails and lied about it, changing her story every couple of weeks as new evidence was uncovered. She kept top secret information on an unsecured private server. She promised to put all coal miners out of work. She is very much pro-abortion. She was responsible for the debacle in Libya and also shares the blame for what happened in Benghazi.

    So, it is not necessarily true that a Trump-supporter agrees with Trump’s opinions about the groups you listed. And it’s certainly not the case that he doesn’t “respect their existence,” whether he likes them or doesn’t like them.

  • Jon Carry

    I voted for Trump in 2016 and I look forward to voting for him again in 2020. Trump is doing exactly what he was elected to do: rein in the bloated Federal government. It is too intrusive, and too expensive. Your comments on Blacks cannot be squared with the fact that Black unemployment is at the lowest levels ever under Trump. Your comments on Trump belittling women cannot be squared with the number of his appointments. But most disturbingly Sarah, you sound like you are on the verge of being dangerously deranged. You are endorsing hatred and calling out for violence. You might want to re-read your post.

  • PeterTx52

    I’m going to assume that you’ve never taken a class in critical thinking, this might explain this senseless column.
    “I like arguing with people who aren’t liberals.” which tells me that you are not open to the ideas of others. you can debate, discus, etc., but arguing is not productive.

  • M. Garcia

    As what stereotypers like you call a “woman of color” (my name is Maria Garcia), I am deeply disgusted by your incredibly idiotic attempt at an opinion piece.

    Like the spoiled little racist brat you are, incapable of independent thinking, you do not know what we people with a background from less lucky countries know, you do not understand the extraordinary chance US has, to have a true leader, an amazing President – devoted to the good of his country and its citizens of ALL backgrounds – like Donald Trump.

    You should be ashamed of yourself and, more importantly, whomever “educated” you – family, teachers – they should be arrested, as they have committed rape on your feeble mind.

    You do not even begin to understand how messed up you are, Sarah. I feel pity for you. Your racism and your hatred are palpable and embarrassing. I speak to you from my heart, but you will likely not understand, as you speak like the racist robot you are.

  • Rollie

    My anger at Trump and everything he’s done since entering the 2016 presidential election easily transferred to everyone who voted for him, or even refused to vote for Hillary (sure, she’s not my favorite, but it was obvious that not voting or voting for a third party candidate would help Trump).

    As a political independent, I’ll put it this way: you’re scapegoating. By nominating Hillary Clinton at all, Democrats themselves helped Trump immeasurably. The party had several viable candidates to choose from, but it nominated the weakest one in its stable—the most scandal-ridden too, and probably the only one the farcical Trump could have beaten. Democrats chose symbolism and Clinton’s “inevitability” over actual substance, and only after Trump’s shocking victory did the shrewder among them regret not having set the bar higher.

    The Newsweek article linked in this opinion piece is suitably silly in its blaming of independent voters for the Trump presidency, and in its regurgitation of clichéd notions of “wasted” votes or the “risk” of supporting third-party candidates. Such rationale is a conceit, because in a free election, no votes belong to any candidate until the moment they are cast, at which point they will have been earned. If Clinton failed to get certain votes, then she simply didn’t earn them…so who is to be blamed for that?